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Done Arguing

The comment thread I was arguing in over at The Chronicle of Higher Education is now officially done. Commenting has been closed, so there's no chance of adding anything new. Since I've copied all my other comments from that thread into previous entries on this blog, I figured that for the sake of completeness, I'd include the last of them here. Again, since this is reposting information instead of posting something original, I'm putting it all below the fold.

For reference, the previous entries where I posted comments from this thread are available here:
Arguing About Religion On Another Site
Still Arguing


Your explanation was good overall, but I do have a few nits to pick.

"Intelligent design provides no non-supernatural mechanism to support how life was created and evolved on this Earth. Again, it must be dismissed for that reason alone as being not science and anyone who desires to teach it in the classroom as science must be stopped (though dismissing them from their jobs, is, admittedly, going too far)."

People get hung up here on the natural vs. supernatural distinction. Science just requires evidence. If there were evidence to support the creation story in the Bible, then science would lead us to accepting that story. In fact, prior to Darwin and Wallace, special creation was the dominant scientific theory for the origin of life. It was the stronger evidence for evolution over creationism that lead scientists to accept it as the better answer.

"anyone who desires to teach it [ID] in the classroom as science must be stopped (though dismissing them from their jobs, is, admittedly, going too far)."

For a first offence, maybe, but why is it going too far to fire teachers who teach students false information? What if an elementary teacher taught students that 2+2=5? Or if a history teach taught that the moon landing was a hoax? Teachers have a responsibility to teach students true information, and they have no business being teachers if they intentionally teach students falsehoods.

Professors have the freedom to research ID all they want, just not to teach it to their students.

Also, sammy_ayers was referencing Expelled, which to be frank, lied about actual events to portray people as being harassed for discussing ID. I included a link to my own blog about Expelled above, but two better places to read full rebuttals to the claims of harassment are given below.

Re: Religion

Zagros, your arguments for 'mere belief' so far haven't convinced me. There may not be an infinite number of gods that people have believed in, but there are enough, with mutually contradictory attributes, that it makes Pascal's Wager break down. If the commonly accepted view of Christianity is correct, it does you no good to believe in a deistic god but to not accept Jesus. You'd still go to hell (similar arguments apply to Islam, or Zoroastrianism). You can argue that you don't believe Yahweh is like that, but your personal opinion makes no difference to objective reality. So, it does you no good to just believe what you want to be true. You have to do your best to determine what is actually true. (I've heard the elephant story before. My same objections still apply. It's fine if a god is nice and forgiving and gives you an A for effort. It's worthless if the god is vindictive and punishes you for not following a specific scripture. Besides, if the elephant story is true, I'm in no danger as an atheist as long as I live a good life and try my best to do good in the world.)

The other problem with Pascal's Wager, which you alluded to yourself, is the argument that belief in the absence of a deity costs you nothing. That's clearly not the case. If you actually attempt to determine a deity's wishes, there are some clear instructions on how to live your life. In the case of the Abrahamic religions, some of these seem to make no sense (no mixed fibers, not eating shellfish, not being able to work on a specific day of the week, no homosexual relations). These do have actual, real consequences on our lives, so why should we even attempt to follow these rules if they're based on an imaginary being, or on a being with a very low probability of existence?

Your definition of a strong atheist is different from what most of us who call ourselves strong atheists actually use. As you pointed out, Richard Dawkins, who I'm sure most would refer to as a strong atheist, conceded a tiny possibility that a god exists. (When pressed, we'd also admit a small probability that Last Thursdayism is true, or that The Matrix was a documentary. We can't rule out those possibilities entirely, but we can say that the odds are so small that we're pretty sure they're false.)

You wrote, "There clearly is a larger 'weight of evidence' in support of a supernatural creator of the universe (God) but that is not science and can never be science for the reasons thus explained." What weight of evidence are you referring to? We don't know what caused the big bang, so what good reason is there to assume that it was supernatural? More importantly, what reason is there to assume that it was intelligent (and if your definition of a deity says that it need not be intelligent, then why even call this concept a 'god')?

Re: Evolution

Zagros, you're trying to neuter science. In your definition of science, if special creation did actually happen, we couldn't use science to study it. To disqualify potential real world events from scientific study is absurd. As I said before, we can use science to study anything that leaves evidence. If there were evidence for special creation, we could study it with science. If miracles happened, they could be observed and documented. Even things traditionally classified as supernatural, such as fairies, could be studied by science if they actually existed (look at the fraudulent photos that fooled Arthur Conan Doyle). Way back up in this thread, new_theologian listed some supposedly miraculous occurrences he thought were evidence for the divine, and I responded with ways that the miracles could be studied scientifically. The only things we can't study with science are those things that leave no evidence, or in other words, those things that don't interact with our universe. A deistic god who set everything in motion at the start of the universe but then remained hands off for the rest of eternity fits this description, but not the interventionist type god required by Intelligent Design.

Let me touch briefly on what Intelligent Design actually is, since I think that would clear up some of the confusion here. ID advocates are usually pretty vague on what ID actually entails, but here are a couple quotes from Of Pandas and People, the ID textbook that was going to be used in Dover.

First, in discussing tetrapod evolution on page 22, the book said, "Instead, fossil types are fully formed and functional when they first appear in the fossil record. For example, we don't find creatures that are partly fish and partly something else, leading gradually, in the dozens of characteristics which they exhibit, to today's fish. Instead, fish have all the characteristics of today's fish from the earliest known fish fossils, reptiles in the record have all the characteristics of present-day reptiles, and so on."

In discussing the incompleteness of the fossil record on page 25, the book said, "There is, however, another possibility science leaves open to us, one based on sound inferences from the experience of our senses. It is the possibility that an intelligent cause made fully-formed and functional creatures, which later left their traces in the rocks."

The main difference between Intelligent Design and creationism seems to be that ID doesn't specify who the creator actually is, and leaves open the possibility that Earth is one giant lab experiment for advanced aliens (without specifying how the aliens themselves came into existence). If you accept evolution but believe that a god was involved in the process, there are other terms that better match your position. 'Theistic evolution' accepts that evolution has happened largely as the scientific theories predict, but that a god has been imperceptibly tweaking the process to ensure its desired outcomes. 'Front loading' accepts that a god created the universe with the right conditions from the outset to result in its desired outcomes, but that the god hasn't directly intervened since. This may all be semantics, but I think it's relevant to this conversation.

Re: Origins of Life

sammy_ayers wrote, "If cell bootstrapping has happened in the past, why isn't it still happening now? Why can't we find a single example, anywhere? Why would it have happened in the past yet is no longer happening?"

For the same reason it's hard for a start up business in an established market - competition. The first life had no competition. It could afford to be inefficient and have a lousy metabolism. But life has had 4 billion years of competition to hone us into pretty efficient organisms. First of all, any free floating proteins and amino acids that could be used as building blocks for new life are likely going to be consumed up almost immediately by bacteria or protozoa. Even if given a chance to come together, any incipient life forms on Earth now would themselves probably be gobbled up almost immediately by bacteria or protozoa, or at the very least be out-competed.

Re: missing links

There's an old joke about missing links. When a scientist finds a fossil that fits into a previous gap, a creationist says, 'Well now you've just made the problem worse. Instead of only one gap, now you have two.'

Fossilization is rare. We don't have fossils of all living animals, so why should we expect to have fossils for all extinct animals? Look at it this way, if you could trace your ancestry back several generations, but couldn't find any record of your great great great grandmother, would you assume that she didn't exist, or that you simply couldn't find the records?

That being said, there are some remarkable transitional fossils. I've already recommended Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, which is full of fossils. To list just a few here, Archeopteryx is probably the most famous, clearly having traits of both living birds and its non-avian theropod ancestors. There's the recently discovered Tiktaalik Roseae, which has been dubbed a fishibian. There are Pakicetus and Ambulocetus showing whale transitionals.

But this whole focus on 'missing links' misses the point. It's the overall story that paints the picture, not isolated fossils. For example, Tiktaalik on its own would be interesting. But it's when you compare it to other organisms like Eusthenopteron, Panderichthys, Ichthyostega, and Acanthostega, that you begin to better understand the evolution of tetrapods.

Re: human evolution

sammy_ayers wrote, "Why are there no apes today that exist in various stages of mutation into man?"

Why should there be? There is no ladder of progress. Humans are no better or worse than the other apes. We're adapted to our environment. The other apes live in different environments, so there's no pressure to make them adapt to be like us.

sammy_ayers also wrote, "Despite the huge amount of money the finding would be worth :-) there is no scientific evidence that man decended from apes."

I would disagree strongly. There's both strong fossil evidence and genetic evidence. In fact, there's too much to list here, so I'll recommend two good places as starting points:

zagros wrote, "It has been proven that man was not descended from apes."

I understand what you're getting at, but this is one of my pet peeves. It would be like saying blue jays aren't descended from birds. Of course we're descended from apes because we are apes ourselves. You can't possibly classify chimps and gorillas as apes without including humans, since chimps are more closely related to us than to gorillas. I imagine that you meant that humans are not descended from any living apes, but I'm pretty sure that if we got in a time machine and traveled back 6 million years to find our ancestors, we wouldn't hesitate to call those creatures apes.

Re: sammy_ayers Questions:

"Do you believe educators should be punished for mentioning intelligent design within hypotheses and theories published to the scientific community?"

It depends. If it's taught in the same way as the aether theory of light, or the law of recapitulation, then there's nothing wrong with mentioning ID. If it's presented as credible science, then the teachers should be punished.

"Do you believe that intelligent design should be ommitted from textbooks and classrooms while other, less likely hypotheses and theories are included within text books and classrooms?"

Unless presented as above, ID should be omitted, and less likely explanations should definitely be omitted. However, evolution and current thoughts on abiogenesis are much more likely than Intelligent Design.

"Do you believe that hypotheses and theories regarding intelligent design should receive less public resources and funding than equally unproven and potentially less likely hypothesis and theories?"

As soon as someone can present a testable theory for ID, I wouldn't mind a little taxpayer money going to test it. But what are these "equally unproven and potentially less likely hypothesis and theories" that you're referring to? Because as I already said, evolution itself is pretty much a fact, and current thoughts on abiogenesis are much more likely than Intelligent Design.

This isn't one of your three questions, but it's close. You wrote, "...you believe we taxpayers who are paying for public schools and universities, should simply overlook the fact that our children are exposed to every hypothesis and theory regarding the origins of life, except that the possibility that life originated by intelligent design will be expressly not permitted."

First of all, children aren't exposed to "every hypothesis and theory regarding the origins of life". They're only taught the most credible ones. Regarding Intelligent Design, I disagree with zagros here. If there were any evidence for intelligent design, I think it would be a fruitful area for research. I wouldn't exclude it a priori just because it may have to do with a deity or may have religious implications. The problem is that the evidence just doesn't exist. That's why it's not suitable to teach to children.

Re: Talk Origins

sammy_ayers, I've already mentioned this to you twice, but I'll mention it a third time. I'd highly recommend that you peruse the Talk Origins website. I'd especially recommend that you browse their Index to Creationist Claims before posting anything further about evolution on this thread. Many of the erroneous arguments that you've picked up from dishonest sources are refuted on that page.

Sammy_ayers and zagros both left responses. If you're interested in reading them, head on over to the original thread.

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